The theme set for this week of studies was ‘Workshop Guidance’ and during the week we discussed and read about the various aspects involved when organising workshops with the aim of collaborating with people through photography. For my final major project, I do not intend organising workshops; yet the literature we read during the week was provocative enough to make me think about this collaborative tool in a more conceptual manner, specifically what this collaborative tool reveals about the ability of the photographic action.
Art is not necessarily social.
Clearly, one can paint a picture or write a story solely for personal consumption. This cognisance seems to indicate that what we should be asking ourselves is not for who we do art but why we do art in general.
Jo Spence states: “It never occurred to me to teach people to take photographs of their own lives” (HEATH ca. 2016). Thus, at its most simple level, the production of art serves the purpose of documenting ones live, with the word documenting here understood out of its social, political, cultural and economic contexts.
Talking about her depression caused by her life-threatening illness, Jo Spence states: “The one bright spot in this depression was the arrival of the pictures I had taken of my hospital experience… I was absolutely staggered at what I’d photographed. I couldn’t believe that I had seen so much and already forgotten it. I had already disavowed what had happened to me. But here were the photographs that my guardian self had taken – so much detail. This points up one of the advantages of photographing one’s traumas – before they become sealed forever” (DENNETT 2001: 26).
In documenting our lives through art production we feel we have a hold on a slice of life, now past. And it is precisely in this awareness that the event captured is past, in the now that confirms that that event is now past, that the now immortalised, material object assumes the semblance of a piquant outtake – a conformation that we were there. The moment captured must jar, must be interesting in some way, must be similar in many respects to an error committed, for us to want to document it, for as St. Augustine states: “if I am deceived, I am” (1871: 468). This material object helps us confirm to ourselves our death-to-come and in this confirmation we become aware that one day we will have to part with our ‘memorabilia’ (and let us here assuage our dear reader’s apprehensions by stating that indeed we all know that we have to die and that, one day, we will have to give up all of our worldly possessions). Now, the material object, after our death, may be lost to posterity because of our inheritors’ negligence or carelessness. And we don’t require extravagant mental activity to become aware of that possibility before our timely death arrives. This somewhat tedious argumentation only helps to strengthen the claim that what we should be asking ourselves is not for who we do art but why we do art.
The otherness of the material object is irreducible – fact. Thus, why is it that we keep on producing things we have no hold over, things that do not amalgamate to the Self? A relation with the thing would surely make the effort worthwhile – and we die, but the relations persist. In fact, talking about Jo Spence’s reading of a book by E. A. Wallis Budge on the rituals of ancient Egypt, Terry Dennett states: “In this mythology the preservation of the body after death was important for the survival of the deceased in the afterlife, but if the body was damaged, a proxy could be used in place of the dead person. This was usually a small statue. If all representations were lost, then writing or speaking the name of the deceased would still ensure survival – to remember and honor was to reactivate. When none wrote or spoke the name then the dead ceased to be” (2001: 27).
Cynicism apart, let us ask in all seriousness the question one more time: why is it that we keep on producing things we have no hold over, things that do not amalgamate to the Self?
Talking about her work in phototherapy, specifically about the darker aspects of the self which we disavow and project onto the external world, Rosy Martin states that through the therapeutic act, “no longer is the ‘other’ the object of projections, the depository of all that is split off and disavowed; instead, aspects of the ‘other’ are recognised as being within” (2001:17). Thus, through photography, utilised as an inherently therapeutic tool, we come to acknowledge previously disavowed, painful aspects of the self, albeit their unremitting otherness.
Let me speak about this latter point in more detail. We usually invoke the term ‘subjective’ when we want to discredit someone’s viewpoint or argument. Let us instead here understand the term as simply defining a subject’s viewpoint at a particular point in time, this without making recourse to any further psychologisms that are usually associated with the term. I take a photo simply because I want to do so. This wanting to take a photograph acts as my intention, the word intention here understood in its etymological sense as a “stretch towards”. I thus take a photo because I want to “stretch towards” – because I want to relate (imagine here an inaudible commentary by the photographer’s Self stating: “this was my viewpoint at a particular moment in time”) – and now you, viewing the photo, are looking at the photo presumably because you want to do so. If we understand your act in wanting to look at the photo as an intended act, intention understood in its etymological sense as a “stretch towards”, then you too in wanting to look at the photo yearn to “stretch towards” – to relate (imagine here another inaudible commentary by your Self, this time, stating to you: “I am looking at what your [the photographer’s] viewpoint was at a particular moment in time”). As Rosy Martin states: “In terms of photography, it is both the gaze itself and the intention of the gaze that becomes instrumental, as ‘the gaze I encounter… is not a seen gaze, but a gaze imagined by me in the field of the Other” (2001: 18).
The “Other” lies within us too.
We can understand this latter statement thus: (1) as with other ‘things’, the “Other” is archived within us, but in being “other” remains ungraspable as this “Other” in being “other” retains exteriority; (2) in lying within us too, the “Other” presumably lies somewhere outside of us too.
Art is thus necessarily social.
Indeed, we do assume agency over our life through (self-)representation. This makes the photographic act necessarily didactic and empowering. As with Spence, the central question becomes: “how can individuals […] use photography to represent themselves, and take control of their own visual narratives? (HEATH ca. 2016).
Saint Augustine (Bishop of Hippo.). 1871. The City of God, Volume 1. Translated by Rev. Marcus Dods. Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark.
DENNETT, Terry. 2001. ‘The Wounded Photographer: The Genesis of Jo Spence’s Camera Therapy’. Afterimage, 29(3), 26-27.
HEATH, Charlene. ca. 2016. Work, Politics, Survival. Aperture [online]. Available at: https://aperture.org/blog/jo-spence/ [accessed 27 July 2019].
MARTIN, Rosy. 2001. ‘The Performative Body: Phototherapy and Re-enactment’. Afterimage, 29(3), 17-20.
Featured Image:Augustus Earle (1793-1838) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons